Pacers host Pistons, another contender in tightly packed East

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With the top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference so tightly packed heading into 2016, there's a good reason why both the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers are already thinking about the big picture.

In the short term, the Pacers could have an awfully tough time dealing with Andre Drummond on Saturday night.

Indiana had to play five extra minutes Wednesday before falling 102-100 at Chicago, then didn't have big men Ian Mahinmi (knee) or Jordan Hill (dental work) the next night against Milwaukee. Those absences showed up in the paint, where the Bucks outscored the Pacers 58-44 en route to a 120-116 win.

"Losing two in a row is unacceptable for us," Paul George said after scoring 31 points to emerge from a five-game slump in which he averaged 13 points on 27.7 percent shooting. "Teams (in the East) are too close for us to be dropping games right now."

George isn't kidding. The top 10 are separated by no more than five games, with the Pacers (18-14) and Pistons (18-15) a half game apart.

Detroit dug itself out of a three-game skid by ending the year with one of its more complete performances of the season. Drummond had 23 points and 18 rebounds and Anthony Tolliver hit five of the Pistons' 14 3-pointers in Thursday's 115-90 rout of Minnesota.

That was enough to put even Stan Van Gundy in a positive mood after reflecting on the end of 2014, when Detroit was 8-23 in his first season on the sideline.

"We've obviously come a long way in the last 12 months," Van Gundy said. "We've turned the roster around, and we've now got a group of guys who fit together on the floor and are all high-character individuals. There's a much better feel with this team."

Drummond has been the most responsible as he heads toward his first All-Star appearance, and he should have plenty of space to operate in the paint if Mahinmi and Hill sit again. Six-foot-9 Lavoy Allen started at center Thursday and little-used Myles Turner and Shayne Whittington were the only other big men at Frank Vogel's disposal.

One of the most dominant games in Drummond's career, however, wasn't enough to beat the Pacers. He had 25 points and a career-high 29 rebounds Nov. 3, but the other Pistons shot 30.4 percent -- 5 of 22 from 3-point range -- in a 94-82 home loss.

Drummond had just 8 and 11 on Dec. 12 at The Palace, but Detroit went 13 of 29 from beyond the arc in a 118-96 rout.

George has struggled in both meetings, shooting a combined 9 for 33 while totaling 29 points, and the key has been pretty simple: Make him put it on the floor. He's missed all nine shots against the Pistons after taking at least five dribbles.

His latest concern is one that's also been plaguing the Pistons in recent weeks. Indiana hasn't led after the first quarter in any of its last seven games, with Thursday's nine-point deficit after 12 minutes the worst of the bunch.

"It's something we've got to get better at," George said. "We can't keep digging ourselves holes and expect to have enough to finish games out when we're down 10 or 15 points."

Detroit has trailed by an average of four points after one in its last seven.

The Pistons are still getting accustomed to the return of another rotation piece. Brandon Jennings has scored seven points in each of his first two back after missing 11 months with a torn Achilles.

Jennings had 37 points in leading the Pistons to a 98-96 win in Indianapolis last January.